Mourning Roy Halladay, a Master Who Craved the Big Moments


In his 2010 no-hitter against the Cincinnati Reds, which was the second no-hitter in postseason history, Roy Halladay struck out eight batters and walked one. Credit Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

Roy Halladay never threw a pitch in the World Series. He expected this to bother him, someday. For most of his dozen years with the Toronto Blue Jays, Halladay was probably the best pitcher in baseball, and only a trade to the Philadelphia Phillies could bring him to the postseason. He made it twice, in 2010 and 2011, without winning a pennant.

“I remember in Toronto just sitting watching the playoffs, wondering how I would do — if it would change me, if I would be a different kind of pitcher, if I would have success,” Halladay said in March, at a picnic table beside the Phillies’ spring training practice fields in Clearwater, Fla.

“I just always wondered what it would feel like to be in those situations — and the whole time I was thinking what it would feel like to win a championship. And then, after being in it twice, I realized I was just wondering, How would I stand up? Would it be everything that I thought it was? And it was.

“So, for me, just having the opportunity meant every bit as much as winning it or not winning it. The rest, as they say, it’s in the cards. But as far as what you can control, just having those opportunities was all I ever wanted.”

Halladay died on Tuesday when the small plane he was piloting plunged into the Gulf of Mexico. He was 40 years old, and the only person on board.

He left behind a wife and two sons. He coached youth teams and seemed to be enjoying a blissful retirement — “in the air or on the water” as he wrote on his Twitter page, where he posted this right under his handle: “Courage is not being fearless but rather acting in spite of the existence of fear!”

That playoff debut, the one he had wondered so much about, will stand as Halladay’s signature performance. He threw a no-hitter against the Cincinnati Reds, the first in the postseason since Don Larsen’s perfect game in the 1956 World Series. And that was as good as it got.

In Halladay’s final playoff game, the next fall, he lost by 1-0 to the St. Louis Cardinals and Chris Carpenter, an old teammate who had taught Halladay his curveball while playing catch in the minors. Somebody had to win that day, and it was his friend, not him. Halladay had given his best, and lost. It happens, and he was rational enough to understand that.

I was in the Phillies’ clubhouse after that loss, when Halladay expressed a version of the comment above. It has struck me ever since as the essence of the competitor: All you really want is a chance to test yourself, to see how it all turns out with everything at stake.

Halladay had gotten his opportunities. He was proud of how he had handled them.

We spoke this spring as part of my research for a book I am writing on pitching. I had chased Halladay for two years, through his agency and his former teams, with no luck. On my visit to Clearwater, Greg Casterioto, the Phillies’ director of baseball communications, told me Halladay was there, working with prospects on the minor league side. He met me at the picnic tables while the major leaguers played on the main field.

Halladay was a little bigger than I remembered, as many players are when their training stops. He had been a fitness fanatic when he played, and said the work — the way it flowed into the competition — was what he missed most since retiring in 2013, at age 36.

Durability was Halladay’s hallmark. He pitched 63 complete games from 2002 through 2011, 30 more than any other pitcher in that decade. His back gave out, but he said his arm always felt strong. The workload never caught up to him because he measured it precisely.

“If I threw 120 pitches in a game, I would throw a 20-pitch bullpen,” Halladay explained. “If I threw 100 pitches in a game, I would throw a 40-pitch bullpen. If I only threw 80, I’d throw a 60-pitch bullpen. So I was always getting the same amount of pitches in a five-day period.”

We talked a bit about the modern state of pitching. Halladay had eight seasons of at least 220 innings, a total no pitcher reached in 2017. He said today’s pitchers, with their turbo fastballs, tried too hard to strike hitters out.

“I felt like with two strikes — 0-2, 1-2 — if they didn’t swing at it, it was going to be strike three,” he said. “I wanted something that they had either had to swing at and put in play, or was going to be a strike on 0-2. Now it’s two extra pitches, and we’re getting back to 2-2 and the count goes on. So I think it’s just changed a lot in the way people think about pitching. They want to stay just off the plate to where they’re avoiding contact.”

Halladay induced weak contact — and so many awkward swings — using the Greg Maddux model of moving the ball in or away on either side of the plate. Hitters knew that Halladay could carve an X in the air, down by their hands or out by their handle, with his sinkers and cutters. He could also lock them up with a curve in the zone, or a split-change — a pitch he learned from Rich Dubee, a Phillies coach — in the dirt.

“I wanted them to swing at every pitch,” he said. And with an arsenal like that, why not?

Halladay’s success was hard-earned. After parts of three seasons in the majors, the Blue Jays sent him to Class A to rebuild his psyche and master a lower arm slot. He appreciated how fleeting success could be, and approached his work with a serious demeanor that evoked Steve Carlton, an earlier Phillies ace.

Carlton was my baseball hero when I was young. My son now roots for the Phillies — his grandparents have tickets — and Halladay was his favorite. When I took him to the Hall of Fame two years ago, he took a picture with the cap Halladay wore for his perfect game in 2010. After our tour, he asked for a framed Halladay photo collage from a store on Main Street.

On Tuesday, my son took inventory of the shrine to Halladay in his bedroom: two framed wall-hangings, two bobbleheads, a pennant and a baseball card. He didn’t cry at the news of the crash; he is 15, too busy for that. He asked if he could go to the Y to practice jump shots. Basketball tryouts are coming up.

I told him I’d have to pick him up in the middle of writing this column, and he said not to bother; he wanted me to write a good story. I insisted he go, because Halladay would have wanted that. He laughed — it’s a trite thing to say, and I barely knew the man. But I meant it.

I learned a lot from Halladay in our interview this spring — how he mastered each of his pitches, how he held them, how he used them to very likely earn a plaque in the Hall. But mostly I learned again that what truly drove him was not the achievement, but earning the opportunity to have it. If he could do that perfectly, he could live with the rest.

Halladay did not live long enough. But his legacy, to me, is powerful and instructive in any field: The purity of the effort matters most.

About MZR

I am a middle aged man trying to be the best person I can become, make a positive difference in our world, while trying to make sense of my life's journey.
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